The Passive Voice is written by a lawyer, so advice about contracts is right in his wheelhouse. Here’s Part 1 of “The Nine Worst Features in Your Publishing Contract”, dealing with the life of the contract, and Part 2 about sales performance standards. There may be future installments — he says his revisit will focus on the most toxic contract provisions, and here he’s dealt with but two.

Do bear in mind that if you care — if you are seriously thinking about making money off your writing — you have to have a lawyer look at your contract before you sign it. But of course bear in mind that lawyers exist to find things wrong in such situations, and you may get into a bit of a tangle which might result in trivial benefit to you, but lots of bad feelings on the other side of the table.

For myself, I wouldn’t be too concerned about lots of the legal things The Passive Voice routinely worries about, but then I’m not someone whose job description would ever be author. (And in my experience the publisher was fundamentally “on the author’s side”.) The contract lasts for the life of the copyright (which as we know is a long time)? So what? If the book’s not selling the copyright is virtually valueless anyway, and almost any publisher will be happy to revert the rights to you. You just need to ask. In my own case I didn’t even have to ask — they as good as said here it is, take it, we don’t need it anymore. (Nor of course did I.) Still, if you are writing a Hunt for Red October, and want to make bigger and bigger bucks off the movie franchise and novel sequels, then caution about being legally assured of being able to get your rights back might be a good idea. If your book is likely to be worth next to nothing in say ten years, then nobody loses anything by such a clause. If on the other hand if the book is still worth lots of money in ten years, the main loser, if no such clause exists, is likely to be you. A book like Hunt for Red October was no doubt worth a good deal more ten years after first publication than it was back in the early days. If your work might follow such a trajectory — caveat scriptor.

The Passive Voice‘s advice that you insist on a clause stating an end date for the contract might well be worth following. Many contracts do have a reversion clause specifying that once the book goes “out of print”, rights can revert to the author.  But now that we have invented POD, a publisher can keep a book “in print” for ever. This is great for many academic books — demand was small anyway and now it can keep on being filled even though there are no books sitting in the warehouse. But the further we get from the academic monograph, the more thought the author might need to give to this situation.